Sometimes, you just know.
When it came to Blake Norwood, I knew from that first March 1996 handshake that I had a friend for life.
His quick smile, big personality, booming voice and comfortable manner set my fairly overwhelmed-at-the-100-mile-distance self at ease from our first conversation. The friendship that ensued grew over the coming years, bringing me back for a total of 17 Umsteads -- a stretch that includes 13 finishes at 100 miles and another four of at least 50 miles.
Umstead was Blake's brainchild, a gentle 100-miler created to give everybody with enough want-to in them a legit chance to finish. The original 10-loop course and its later and current 12.5-mile sister both turned out to be the perfect catalysts for me to erase my earlier hundo woes. The confidence I scored at Blake's annual party slowly, surely changed my life.
When I learned earlier this week of his sudden and unexpected death, my mind when blank. No. Please no. Not long after, however, the memories refilled it. So many laughs. So many times we flipped each other off at first sight (boys WILL be boys!!). So many encouraging words from him shot my way during some low point late in one of his races that kept me going.
Two stories rushed back to me almost immediately.
1998. Blake, multiple toilet paper rolls in hand, tried to pace me, D.J. Reyes and Ben Clark as we headed out for our 10th and final loop because he needed to refill some porta-johns. Yes, we dropped him. And yes, I made sure to give him shit about it for years after.
The hurricane year. Blake at the halfway point screamed at me to put more clothes on. I, being totally my stuboorn-ass self, told him that I'd be fine in my polypro hat, cotton gloves and trash bag ... only to have the temps drop 38 degrees in the next hour, the rain blow sideways and me drop out 4.5 miles later.
So many, many stories. And Blake is somewhere near the center of almost every one.
Late last year, current Umstead 100 RD Rhonda Hampton put the call out that she and friends wanted submissions for a tribute book they planned to turn over to Blake at this year's race -- his pre-planned U100 swan song. I jumped at the chance and kicked her what appears below ... I am so glad that he got this and that he appreciated all our submissions.
How do you thank someone for giving you the opportunity to prove yourself to yourself?
That's what you have done for me with your Umstead 100-Mile Endurance Run.
I remember the 1996 Umstead like it was yesterday. My first 100-mile finish. 24:44. Moving through the night with the late, great Aaron Goldman, who was also chasing his first successful 100-mile finish after a decade of trying. Getting passed with one mile to go by my friends Andy and Shelley Wunsch as Shelley was about to become the female champ. Them asking me if I wanted to share the finish line. Me asking Aaron if it was be OK. Aaron saying sure. Me running five steps with Shelley after having walked for 10 miles straight and realizing that -- you know what -- sometimes you really can't run even one more step. But you can almost always walk one more. Ah, the first of many, many lifetime lessons U100 would dole out to this remarkably slow learner.
I have been fortunate enough to cross a total of 12 Umstead 100-Mile finish lines so far. Some a lot faster than that first one. Some a lot slower. Each journey has been worth every single step. I've made so many friends, had so many laughs, taken so many sleep breaks (hah!), eaten so many of your Myra's coveted finisher omelets and created so, so many lifetime memories.
My life is a much more rich existence because of Umstead 100. I owe you more than I will ever be capable of repaying.
Thank you a thousand times over, brother.